The Trump Administration Follows Through on a Pledge to Protect Religious Freedom

On Tuesday, President Trump signed a proclamation for National Religious Freedom Day. It is a seldom noticed event. January 16 is the anniversary of Virginia’s General Assembly adopting Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom which inspired the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This is the whole proclamation, but this portion is particularly significant:


Our Constitution and laws guarantee Americans the right not just to believe as they see fit, but to freely exercise their religion.  Unfortunately, not all have recognized the importance of religious freedom, whether by threatening tax consequences for particular forms of religious speech, or forcing people to comply with laws that violate their core religious beliefs without sufficient justification.  These incursions, little by little, can destroy the fundamental freedom underlying our democracy.  Therefore, soon after taking office, I addressed these issues in an Executive Order that helps ensure Americans are able to follow their consciences without undue Government interference and the Department of Justice has issued guidance to Federal agencies regarding their compliance with laws that protect religious freedom.  No American — whether a nun, nurse, baker, or business owner — should be forced to choose between the tenets of faith or adherence to the law.

This is a key point. Under Obama, you rarely heard “freedom of religion.” What you heard was that New Deal relic “freedom of worship.” The difference is more than semantic. Freedom of worship implies that faith is a private matter and how you worship is your own business but worship takes place at a specific place and time. Freedom of religion acknowledges your right to live a religious life, whether that means driving a horse-drawn buggy or wearing a yarmulke or going full-metal Linda Sarsour and wearing a hijab or having a crucifix on your desk at work.


When President Trump came into office, one of his first acts was to sign an executive order requiring the federal government to respect religious freedom and to accommodate it. Jeff Sessions issued sweeping guidance to the Justice Department telling them that the federal government would actively intervene to protect religious liberty. And the federal government has done so. A prime example is the Masterpiece Cakeshop case where the federal government reversed the position taken by the Obama administration and now supports the baker.

Today something just as significant happened. The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights created a division to support religious freedom. Via an internal email from HHS:

Please join Acting Secretary Eric Hargan and HHS leadership as we announce the establishment of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the Office for Civil Rights specializing in enforcement of and compliance with laws that protect conscience and free exercise of religion, and that prohibit coercion and discrimination.

HHS is taking a leading role in implementing President Trump’s Executive Order on Free Speech and Religious Liberty and the Department of Justice’s Religious Liberty Guidance.

Even though it is below freezing in DC, the DC Fire Department was called out to wash exploded heads off the walls inside the Humbert Humphrey Building.


This is Think Progress:

The Trump administration is creating an office aimed at protecting the religious rights of medical providers, including those who oppose abortion.

The new enforcement unit will be part of the civil rights office at the Department of Health and Human Services. It will be called the Division on Conscience and Religious Freedom.

The administration’s action drew immediate criticism from Democrats like Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who say it will undermine women’s rights to a legal medical procedure and could open a path for discrimination against transgender people.

Thursday’s announcement comes a day before the annual anti-abortion march in Washington by abortion opponents. Religious and social conservatives are a core constituency for the Trump administration. The president plans to address the march by satellite from the White House Rose Garden.

Spot on. It will prevent doctors and nurses from having to perform or assist in abortions.

The guy heading the Office of Civil Rights, Roger Severino, has been a civil rights litigator at Justice and headed the religious freedom group at Heritage. This is what he had to say:

OCR Director Severino said, “Laws protecting religious freedom and conscience rights are just empty words on paper if they aren’t enforced. No one should be forced to choose between helping sick people and living by one’s deepest moral or religious convictions, and the new division will help guarantee that victims of unlawful discrimination find justice. For too long, governments big and small have treated conscience claims with hostility instead of protection, but change is coming and it begins here and now.”

Acting HHS Secretary Hargan said, “President Trump promised the American people that his administration would vigorously uphold the rights of conscience and religious freedom. That promise is being kept today. The Founding Fathers knew that a nation that respects conscience rights is more diverse and more free, and OCR’s new division will help make that vision a reality.”


A lot has been said about the state of Donald Trump’s soul. I don’t know that any of us knows very much about the subject, and none of us knows as much as some claim to know. As a Catholic, I don’t have a dog in the fight over what various ministers say about him. I just know that we’re all fallen and most of us try to do the best we can with the particular cross we have to bear. Back in the 1970s, a black three-star general named Julius Becton took command of the US Army’s VII Corps headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. The Army at that time had a real race problem and in an interview, he was asked how he dealt with racism. He said words that have stood me in good stead as an infantry officer, as a low-level executive, and as a father: I can’t change what is in their hearts but I can damned sure modify their behavior.

That, for me, encapsulates how I feel about Trump on faith issues. I don’t know and really don’t care what is in his heart and soul, though I wish him well in his trials and his journey, but Trump has done more to protect religious liberty in one year than George W. Bush got around to doing in eight. And that has to count for something.


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